Melissa Hipkins is proud of the fact that the other candidates thought there was nothing out of the ordinary. Throughout the two-day residential course, none of her fellow aspiring heads worked out her secret. "No one guessed I wasn't a teacher," she says.
Already an assistant head and now with the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) under her belt, she has set her sights on the next step up. "I've been making some pretty fundamental decisions in my current post and I see a headship as an extension of that."
Putting non-teachers in charge of schools is an idea that has gained ground in recent years. The theory goes that it will bring in management expertise from outside education at a time when schools are run more like businesses than ever before.
It also seems to have official sanction. A Government-commissioned study into school leadership by PricewaterhouseCoopers, a consultancy firm, concluded that where schools had created a chief executive position, "there should be no barrier to an individual without qualified teacher status (QTS) taking on that leadership role".
The report suggested that splitting the tasks of administrative head and head of teaching and learning would make the job of school leader more feasible, as well as enabling the senior teacher to focus on their role as lead practitioner. But it also acknowledged that there was considerable opposition to the idea of a non-teacher running a school, and that "professional credibility with the teaching workforce is paramount".
The policy has not got off to the best start. The country's first non- teaching head of a state school, Peter Noble at the Richard Rose Foundation in Cumbria, quit earlier this term just five months into the job after the emergence of serious problems at one of the foundation's two schools. One of the criticisms levelled at Mr Noble, who had been drafted in after a career as a health service manager, was that he did not have the right experience to run a school.
But while events at Richard Rose may have been a setback to the push for non-teacher heads, it has not quashed it altogether. Indeed, it has been buoyed by the appointment of non-teachers in school leadership teams, itself a consequence of local management of schools, the policy introduced in the Eighties to give heads greater control over their budgets. Faced with the requirement to oversee budgets of several million pounds, many heads responded by appointing specialists with financial expertise as bursars or business managers.
This was how Ms Hipkins ended up in school. After a career in industry, she was appointed bursar at Lawrence Sheriff School in Rugby in 1995. She is now assistant head in charge of business and finance. For her, the Richard Rose case exposed not shortcomings in the policy, but in how it was put into practice. "Parachuting someone in from another organisation is fraught with problems," she says. "You need school experience to understand the nuances and the psyche of teachers, parents and kids."
This is echoed by John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, who backs the idea of non-teaching heads, but only after they have served in a school's leadership team.
Ms Hipkins recognises that if she ever did become a head, it would have to be in conjunction with a director of teaching and learning. But she believes it could happen. "I would love to think it was a possibility," she says. She has taken an MBA in educational leadership, where again she was the only non-teacher, and a course for aspiring heads run by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, as well as the NPQH.
On all of those courses, she says she had as much experience as any other candidate in all fields except one. "The only area I was lacking was teaching and learning," she says. "You need an array of skills, and teaching and learning is one facet in a huge commercial enterprise. Why not pull skills other than teaching and learning to the fore?"
The National College for School Leadership, which took over running the NPQH in 2000, does not record how many candidates have QTS, although it estimates that of the 32,000 people who have taken the qualification since 1997, only one to two per cent were not qualified teachers. The bulk of these are thought to be teachers in the independent sector, where QTS is not required to teach, and the number with NPQH who have no teaching experience is likely to be small.
A combination of local management of schools and the expansion in the deployment of teaching assistants has seen a rapid rise in the number of support staff in schools.
Since 2000, the number of full-time equivalent support staff in state- funded schools in England has increased by almost 250 per cent. Over the same period, the ratio of teachers to support staff in maintained schools has fallen from 3:1 to 1.4:1. The drive towards extended schools, with schools offering community services beyond education, will increase this trend.
Peter Kent, Ms Hipkins' headteacher at Lawrence Sheriff, says promoting his bursar to assistant head was an acknowledgement of the role support staff play in schools now. "It is about parity of esteem," he says. It also recognises the broader role she plays in the school than just looking after the finances. As well as assemblies and playground duties, she mentors pupils and is called upon to deal with behaviour issues.
While Mr Kent says schools need to have people with teaching experience in leadership teams, he believes they benefit from having a non-teacher's point of view at a senior level. "I don't agree with the idea that you can't contribute to a school unless you have been a teacher," he adds.
He says he has no hesitation in recommending his assistant for headship, although Ms Hipkins says deputy head would be her next step.
But, as the Government study acknowledges, there is considerable resistance to the idea of non-teacher heads within the profession. John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, recognises there is an argument for staff without QTS having senior positions in schools, but says this should not extend to headship. Instead, he argues that the Government should follow Wales and bring in a requirement that all heads in England have QTS. "The core business of schools is pedagogy and you need somebody in charge who understands that," he says. "You have to show pedagogic leadership and you can only do that if you have experience in the classroom, and you only have that if you have been a teacher." He believes events at Richard Rose will dampen enthusiasm for the idea in Government circles.
Tony Callaghan, a retired head and former national executive member on the NASUWT, the teaching union, opposes the idea of anyone without a teaching qualification taking charge of schools. Mr Callaghan, who last year formed the Teachers in Classrooms group to lobby against the perceived threat to teaching by the wider use of non-teaching staff, rejects the idea that management expertise in the commercial sector is automatically transferable to schools.
"To understand how a school operates you need to have some classroom experience," he says. "You need to know what it is like to teach a group of 15-year-olds, and unless you understand what that is about how can you lead that organisation?"
For Mr Callaghan, while managers from the private sector may not make a mess of running a school, their appointment would signal a sea change in the way education is perceived. "It will dilute the profession and soon you won't need to bother with a teaching qualification," he says.
David Hopkins, emeritus professor at the Institute of Education in London, is co-author of a report on school leadership for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. He says while the Richard Rose experience is not a good omen, it does not disprove the thesis that managers from outside education could make good school leaders.
He sees an argument for people with corporate experience being drafted in as chief executives of school federations, as long as they are supported by good instructional leaders. "It is horses for courses, and how far their skills are complementary." But he believes it is important to distinguish the different factors in decision-making in schools and in businesses. "Sometimes you have to make educational decisions that are not ones you would make if you were running an organisation for profit," he says.
Professor Hopkins says the "fantastic success" of the bursar movement demonstrates the contribution non-teachers can make to schools.
Geoff Barton, the head of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, says it is inevitable that support staff looking for promotion will see the management team as the next step. Mr Barton, who appointed his business manager Derek Tye to the four-strong leadership team three years ago, heads a staff of 175, of whom 80 are teachers.
"It seems odd to suggest the leadership of a large organisation should be drawn from less than half the staff," he says.
Mr Tye, who joined King Edward VI after 27 years in banking, sees part of his role as offering a non-teacher point of view.
"Teachers tend to approach something from a teaching perspective, whereas I tend to ask: `Why are we doing this?' I try to make sure we take into account the impact on all the staff, not just the teachers."
He says while the view that a head should be a teacher is quite entrenched, schools are also now sizeable businesses - King Edward VI has an annual turnover of Pounds 6 million - and the prospect of a non-teacher head is far from unthinkable. "Five years down the road, I could well see a governing body making that decision," he says.
After a career in local government, Graeme Hornsby joined Lutterworth College, Leicestershire, in 1989 as a bursar in the early days of the local management of schools initiative. Now assistant principal responsible for business management, he says schools are good at getting the right mix of skills among teachers in leadership teams, but the same does not always apply when it comes to non-teaching staff. All the same, he believes it is only a matter of time before more non-teacher heads are appointed.
"It will happen, although I don't think the time is right for it yet." He sees an expectation that the head will have been a teacher as the chief stumbling block, and the need to have the respect of teachers. "There is a question of credibility," he adds.
A head without QTS would need strong support from the leading teaching professional in the school, he says. And, like Ms Hipkins, he cautions against parachuting in managers with no experience of education. "You have to have good knowledge of teaching and learning to lead a large organisation whose prime focus is teaching and learning," he says.
An argument used in favour of non-teaching school leaders is the shortage of heads. According to a report published earlier this year by Education Data Surveys, part of TSL Education, about one quarter of secondary head vacancies, and almost one-in-four at primary level, had to be re- advertised. This trend is expected to worsen with an increase in retirements forecast among heads over the next two years.
However, from next month, the Government has stipulated that all new heads will have to have NPQH, which could restrict the field to those already working in schools. Few organisations, says John Howson, director of Education Data Surveys, would be willing to allow their managers to take time off to study for a qualification that will take them into a different profession.
Internal appointments, from within a school's existing support staff, could have financial advantages. Support staff are not entitled to be paid on the same scale as teachers, and are often on considerably lower salaries.
"The economics stack up pretty well, although it is not all about finance," says David Ellis, who appointed Naomi Robinson, a former teaching assistant, as a head of year at York High School two years ago.
While other heads of year at the school devote a third of their timetable to their pastoral role, Ms Robinson has no teaching commitments. The result is the school gets a full-time head of year for pound;27,000, instead of the near-pound;40,000 for a teacher who only spends a third of their time doing the job.
"We get a full week of pastoral care significantly cheaper than if we were employing somebody on a teaching salary," Mr Ellis says. So far the only adverse reaction he has received has been from teachers who felt this could close off an avenue for advancement. But Mr Ellis says all vacancies are filled on the basis of the best person for the job, rather than cost grounds.
Although schools may benefit from the influx of non-teachers, this should not extend to heads, according to Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Buckingham University.
He says there is no evidence that commercial management skills are sufficient to run a school. The fact that those schools that essentially are businesses - independent schools - have not rushed to appoint heads with a non-education background suggests it is an idea better on paper than in practice. "Schools are organisations about learning and you need somebody in charge who is steeped in teaching and learning," says Professor Smithers. "Schools are more complex than they once were and they could draw in people from outside, but that should essentially be in support roles."
Although Mr Barton champions the contribution support staff can make, he draws back from supporting the idea of non-teacher heads. "I can't imagine having someone who is not a teaching head, but that may depend on different contexts," he says.
Ms Hipkins recognises there are considerable obstacles if she is to achieve her ambition. "Of course there is prejudice, and of course people say you haven't got the experience of training to be in the classroom, but I think it will happen," she says.
There may be setbacks along the way, but all the signs are that she is right, and that Richard Rose will not be a one-off. But the test will be not whether non-teachers can be chosen as headteachers, but whether pupils enjoy a better education as a result.